Columbus is the debut film of writer and director Kogonada. Before making this film, he was best known for video essays and supercuts posted on Vimeo that highlight techniques employed by Stanley Kubrick, Wes Anderson, Yasujirô Ozu, and Terrence Malick, among others. With a keen eye for composition and serious editing chops, it isn’t a surprise that Kogonada made a deliberately paced film highlighting the architecture of Columbus, Indiana. What comes as surprising is that the story of friendship and familial guilt the film tells works against an unending stream of perfectly composed frames and sometimes jarring jump cuts. This is a film that freely flaunts its techne often—a signal that, as art, a film may fall short. Yet that is not the case here, thanks in part to a couple of lovely performances by Haley Lu Richardson as Casey and John Cho as Jin; the film is charming and emotionally resonant.
Each frame of the film is stunning. The architecture here provides shapes, lines, and space for the actors to inhabit. The size of the space provided by a particular framing is used to carefully scale the performances to the needs of the scene and story—as in an early scene when Jin’s father wanders away from his assistant slowly receding into the background while she talks into her cell phone. It takes significant time for him to make his way off camera and this is enabled by the composition, which produces anxiety in the audience when she then has to run to his aid after he collapses.
Apart from the well-told story, Columbus is well worth it’s hour and forty minutes to simply linger with Elisha Christian’s camera on the modernist buildings of Richard Meier, Eliel Saarinen, I.M. Pei, or Robert A.M. Stern. After watching the film and relinguishing myself to its steady rhythms and extraordinary empathy, I almost immediately considered when I might re-watch it with the sound turned off to see just how well it holds up as an architectural study. Well, I suspect. Columbus is the rare film that lets its artifice out in the daylight and still convinces us of the interior lives of its characters and succeeds as both story and cinematic exercise.